Published  01/01/1965

On art and technology

On art and technology

One nice thing about technology is that it can neither be called serious nor the opposite. It just is. The matter is only to come to terms with it. Technology has a history but no destiny. It is used to produce or communicate. By joining forces with art, which is a game (like chess, Olympics), it comes into its own.


(This article was first published in Studio International, Vol 177, No 907, January 1969, pages 5-6.)

<We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.
C. G. Jung, 'Psychology and alchemy'.

I think it was Larry Poons who said, learning that another painter had tried something, `Well, I won't have to do that.' Knowing that technology can now provide this or that, artists no longer have to do it. (Although some haven't noticed yet that photography was around.)

Whenever attempts have been made in a new direction, most people have said, 'It's not serious. It will pass.' (Madame de Sévigné, of course, said that the taste for Racine would pass as quickly as the taste for coffee. She was right.) Ten or twenty years later, they suddenly discovered that those not-serious things were all over the place. One nice thing about technology is that it can neither be called serious nor the opposite. It just is. The matter is only to come to terms with it. Technology has a history but no destiny. It is used to produce or communicate. By joining forces with art, which is a game (like chess, Olympics), it comes into its own.

In 1961, Jean Tinguely 'produced' his self-destroying métamachine, Hommage à New York, in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. It was momentous because much of Tinguely's work is, because several New York artists (some well known) contributed anonymous components and because he has the constant assistance of Billy Klüver, a research engineer with the Bell Laboratories. Billy Klüver went on helping artists to incorporate technology in their paintings, performances or sculptures. He got other engineers interested and in 1966 this co-operation produced 9 Evenings— Theater and Engineering (New York). Ten painters, musicians, dancers and more than thirty engineers took part in that second Armory Show. It was very ambitious and it failed in many ways. Strong artists came on strongly, others seemed paralyzed by the newness of the situation. Communication between artists and engineers was difficult, worked best when actual concrete objects served as catalysts. Also, the public was trapped in awkward bleechers, denied the participation that it should have enjoyed. Yet it was an important turning point. A bridge, however tentative, had been established. One could take stock and prepare for the future. E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) was thereafter created to continue the dialogue. It may be argued that a cumbersome organization is unnecessary, that technology is everywhere underfoot for the artist to use. This is only true to a limited extent because, past a very elementary stage, the artist does not know how technology works. It was Robert Rauschenberg's idea to have a game of tennis in which the balls, when hitting the rackets, would trigger circuits that extinguished the lights one by one, randomly, while the sounds were recorded to accompany the second part of Open Score (9 Evenings). But surely he could not be expected to build the rackets or design the circuits. The poetry was his but the means were not. So the self-centredness of the artist gave way to an interchange that was more than the sum of its components.

I once heard a mathematician explain cybernetics. André Breton listened attentively and then said, 'I hope these machines will get their wires crossed soon. They will write surrealist books.'

Perhaps we can no longer enjoy rivers or skies or quiet country evenings the way we imagine our grandparents (or theirs) did. But we can see the structure of crystals, hear the sounds of our nervous system and admire the patterns of shock waves, directly or on photographs. The sum total remains constant.

One reads constantly about the fear that technology will dehumanize man. Why should it? Technology is an invention of man. It seems to me that it may change man, the idea 'man' has of himself, which is roughly that of a white-middle-class-nineteenth-century man. And a threatened image it has become.

The surrealists took objects out of context, led them astray so that we could see them again for the first time. Encounter replacing habit. Taken out of its context technology can become an element of chance, of poetry (life). Turning around we will derive pleasure (art) from watching technology pursuing its own end.

Everyone knows about the 'American tourist'. Finding himself in an unfamiliar situation, he acts up in a way he never would at home. One way or the other many artists when they are confronted with technology, act up. There is no telling how scientists would behave if more than a handful were confronted with art (in the making). They can only gain from knowing each other better.

We are, so to speak, these days richer. We have everything we used to have. The Mona Lisa, for instance, is still with us. On top of which we have the Mona Lisa with a moustache. (John Cage.) (1)

Years ago, I visited a micro rocket research laboratory at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. It was the first time that I was seeing pure research, so to speak, in operation. Nothing much happened. It seemed to me that the scientists working there were putting elements in the presence of one another, pushing a little here or there, watching for things to happen their way. I realized then how close science could be to poetry, the scientist focusing himself in such a way that things organized themselves through him and events happened that were not directly related to each other or to him.

I am not against technology. Neither am I for it. Taking positions before it is as absurd as being for or against mountains, rivers or the ocean. Technology is our landscape, our environment and the only thing to do is to try to come to terms with it as we have done with the natural world. (Octavio Paz.)

When movies were first made, they were looked upon as a kind of toy. Later they became something like carnival attractions. Serious people dismissed them, poets loved them. As they began to talk and represent things realistically in an acceptable manner, some worried that they would kill the novel. At the same time the realization slowly emerged that motion pictures were a different tool altogether and that there was more to them than the ability to tell a story (illustrate a book) or show news (illustrate newspapers). In France, a school and a lively magazine (Les Cahiers du Cinéma) were founded at about the same time (in the years after World War II) although independently. They created quite a movement and the 'New Wave' ensued. Movies became a worthwhile endeavour. Meanwhile novels continued to be written, in fact were sometimes influenced by movie language. In turn, Jean-Luc Godard introduced the reading of books in his work. Now no one (almost) would think of rejecting movies because they require technology to come into being. Why should one reject a painting because it has a neon number on it? Or working radios? A sculpture because it is made of industrial lucite? Yet people do. The movies have music, words, images, movement, colours. They seemed like a natural introduction to inter-media, the breaking down of categories. But there is reluctance at every step. Is parchment really more noble than paper?
The technical problems involved in any single project tend to reduce the impact of the original idea, but in being solved they produce a situation different than anyone could have pre-imagined. (John Cage) (2)

We now consider art constructions that were meant to serve as calendars, granaries or astronomical tools. We consider poetry writings that only aimed at transmitting a body of history. Why do we need centuries to blur distinctions? There is a power station at Kennedy Airport which gives me more pleasure than many sculptures.

An artist creates his work from the materials available in his world. (Gordon Mumma) (3)

Some now strain to show they are aware of technology the way others have strained in the past to show they were aware of perspective. This, I believe, will pass. Discoveries tend to block the horizon until they become part of it. Concrete poetry could not have come about without the typewriter. Likewise, hopefully, every facet of technology will become just another source of images.

Not trying to establish a bridge (Paz) between technology and life as we are used to it, we maintain a scaling of values which is becoming obsolete.

Variation V (1965) was an inter-media spectacle with music (John Cage), dance (Merce Cunningham), film (Stan van der Beek) and electronic materials (Billy Klüver). In it (roughly) dancers triggered sound when their movements brought them in the beam of photoelectric cells positioned around the stage. The cells also responded to the light intensities of the film. The outcome of each performance was therefore indeterminate. Every time Variation V was performed the participants entered a world as magic, unpredictable and relevant as child play—on an adult scale. Vicariously, the audience shared this sense of wonder. More recently the viewer was put in the driver's seat by Hans Haacke, an artist from Cologne. His Photoelectric Viewer Programmed Coordinate System presented itself as a small white cubic room lined with ordinary electric bulbs at eye level (for a small person). Under each bulb was an all but invisible cell so that bulbs were turned on and off by the movements of the viewers) in the room. He (they) could also play with the system by placing his (their) arms or other objects in such a way that more bulbs were turned on than would normally have been, but there was no way, save sitting on the floor, to remain in the dark and deny the piece existence. This was undoubtedly embryonic but an embryo is by definition a promise of more to come.

The artist ... is going from an inspired contemplator to a thinking participant capable of bringing about synthesis. (Victor Vasarely) (4)

At the PEN International meeting in New York, there was a lively session called 'The Writer in the Electronic Age'. Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller were among those sitting on the stage. An African delegate argued that the topic itself was irrelevant when in so many parts of the world would-be writers still had difficulty securing paper or light. He had a point. Yet, too much has been said about the peasants of Yucatan or other isolated places who have never seen a train but take a plane with their pigs. We know that they have some awareness of technology and that willy-nilly their writers are in the electronic age.

Technology can be sophisticated but does not have to be. Recently, the Pace Gallery (New York) showed an environment called Darkness by Robert Whitman. In the unlit rooms, rotating lasers drew delicate linear patterns on the wall. Without a laser, the Lighthouse of the Bride and the dark labyrinth of Surrealism in 1947 (Paris) produced in the viewer the same amount of wonder. It was for all to see very simple, so that Whitman's contribution seems to me [misspelled, be] more interesting for the engineer/scientist than for artists.

A headline in the New York Times once read, `Art and Science Proclaim Alliance in Avant-Garde Loft'. I find this rather silly. Did art and science earlier proclaim alliance in Leonardo da Vinci? Art ex machina? No. Cum machina.

The use of the engineer by the artist will stimulate new ways of looking at technology and of dealing with life. (Billy Klüver) (5)

During a symposium called Vision 67, Tinguely assembled a machine which carried beer bottles on a belt conveyor and was equipped with an axe that beheaded them. Many people laughed. However, when the first bottle was (inadvertently?} spared there was a deep sigh of relief in the audience. The situation had become human. Later Tinguely said, 'It should not work too well.' After the performance of Variation VI, an indeterminate concert of recorded sounds, someone asked Cage whether the performance would be repeated. He replied, 'It would become perfect and we are trying to remain imperfect.' Poetry is made of these imperfections. One hopes that artists will see to it that they remain.

By bending technology toward artistic ends we establish a distance and a beauty that puts technology back into human control and purges it of its invisible demons that hypnotize and thwart us through levels of influence below our awareness and therefore below our control. (John Perreault) (6)

Writing until recently had seemed untouched, if not uninfluenced. However, poetry readings had changed the relationship between the poet and the recipients, introducing a sense of ritual. John Giorno, whose poems are collages of newspaper and other clippings, records them on tape using several voices, intensities, echoes, playing them back in a prepared environment and in such a way that unexpected juxtapositions, dialogues (unexpected to the audience, at least) add an entirely new dimension to what might otherwise be rather uneventful reading.

I mean that the texts seem to me a little pedestrian, although funny, and that it would be interesting to have love, anger, joy or sadness go through similar manipulations. They probably would lose some pathos which is always a good thing. Then there is Michel Butor. 6.810.000 Litres par Seconde, a 'novel' that takes place at Niagara Falls, is subtitled 'Etude stéorophonique'. The published form is a typographical rendering of a performance that to my knowledge has never taken place. It makes beautiful reading, because he is a beautiful writer, but one can only guess how much an audio-visual rendering would still add to it.

The use of the familiar is obscure, the use of the exotic is familiar. Neither sacrifices completely its origin, but the mind has to travel to follow just as the eye has come to change to focus ... No competition exists between the physical character of the materials and the function of the signs. Both remain lively impure. (Robert Rauschenberg)

To paraphrase McLuhan: Media (technology)—an extension of man's dreams. 

1. In a statement prepared for a press conference before the 9 Evenings.
2. Ibid.
3. In Chelsea Review, Spring 1967.
4. Prepared text for Vision 67, a symposium organized jointly by the New York University School for Continuing Education and the International Center for the Communication Arts and Sciences.
5. Same as (1).
6. In The Village Voice, New York, March 16, 1967.

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